The L.A. TV Show That Taught America How to Groove

Nelson George Dissects the SoCal Style That Made ‘Soul Train’ a National Phenomenon

In Squaring Off, Zócalo invites authors into the public square to answer five questions about the essence of their books. For this round, we pose questions to music historian Nelson George, author of The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style.

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George takes us behind the scenes of the long-lived, iconic variety show that brought booty-shaking moves, the pairing of knickerbocker pants with striped socks, and the ballads of Al Green to living rooms across the country. It also takes us into the mind of Don Cornelius, Soul Train’s cooler-than-cool creator, who shaped the show for its entire 35-year run.

Throughout his young adult years in 1970s Brooklyn, George got his Soul Train fix every Saturday at 11 a.m. He and his friends would watch the dance moves in the morning and try them out on the dance floor at a party that night. He remembers thinking that the bright colors on the show and the audacity of the outfits felt so Southern Californian compared to his muted northeast urban landscape.

Soul Train was this initial place for exuberant L.A. dancing. Then it became a place dancers all over the country gravitated to because it was the showcase. Everyone I interviewed said the same thing: I wanted to be where those kids were. I wanted to dance with them.
  1. Soul Train started in Chicago but after a year moved to Los Angeles to go national. What difference did it make that Soul Train hit the big time in L.A.?

    There were a few things about Soul Train coming to L.A. in 1971. There was access to more talent—this was the place where people recorded. There were TV shows and films and more of the performers to put in the show. 1971 was also a big turning point in black culture. Motown Records, the biggest brand in black music, moved out here at that time. Stax Records, the second biggest brand, was doing a lot out here and in fact, they did a big concert out here in 1972. 1971 was also one of high points of the blaxploitation movie movement. So you had a critical mass of energy in L.A. around black culture.

    Then there was Locke High School. After the Watts riots in 1965, there was a lot of talk about city government doing more for the black community, and one of the things that did happen was the creation of Alain Locke High School, which was intended as a music and arts high school. Don Cornelius visited Locke’s summer program to talk about a special show he was going to do involving R&B artists and dancing; he wanted kids from the community to participate. Patrice Rushen, the composer and singer, was recruited from Locke to be on Soul Train. The program even sent over a bus and loaded the kids into it and drove them over to the KTTV studios on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Rushen became part of the first class of dancers. She was more interested in music, but she was able to get intimate and see the performers up-close during the show, and of course that was her aspiration. She became one of rare group of people who actually danced on the show and later on performed on the show as a musician—along with people like Jody Watley and Nick Cannon.

  2. You quote Cornelius in the book discussing L.A. dancers: “If you had given me a choice, I would have said to all of them, Please don’t dance like that. It’s nasty, okay? It’s not cool.” What he was reacting to?

    Don was a Chicagoan. He was the embodiment of cool—a certain kind of reserved charisma, if you will. That was a style of movement, a style of being that came out of the black community in the post-war period—Don was very much an exemplar of that. When Don danced, Don danced really cool. He didn’t really sweat. He had a nice kind of groovy move. The California style of dance was much more exuberant, much showier. At first, he was like, “Whoa.” He didn’t really understand it. But he put it on the air and found it was incredibly captivating.

    One thing you’ll see throughout Don’s career, and especially with Soul Train, is that he sees something he may personally not love, but he will adjust to it if he feels as if the audience wants to see that. It’s similar to his relationship with hip-hop. He didn’t really love hip-hop, but the audience was demanding it, and so he went with it. From Kurtis Blow and Sugar Hill Gang in the early 1980s up until Don stopped hosting the show in 1993, he had lots and lots of rappers on. For many of them, it was their first TV experience. Blow was the first MC on the show; Don said he didn’t know why everyone was making so much fuss about hip-hop. It was quite a moment. It sort of exemplified the way the black adult world felt about hip-hop. They just didn’t get it, and they were vaguely threatened by it. And if you look back, that was very benign hip-hop compared to what came later.

  3. How would you describe the L.A. style when you say it’s “flamboyant”?

    There were a number of clubs here at that time. Probably the most important one for Soul Train was Maverick’s Flat, which was the chief showbiz space for black talent in L.A. Richard Pryor did comedy there. Earth, Wind & Fire was at one point the house band. Lakeside played there. So they had great musicians. And the dancers who came through were flamboyant. Put it this way: Locking was created here in Los Angeles. And the dancers who popularized it came out of Maverick’s Flat. There was a kind of creativity and exuberance and willingness to look a little crazy. That began to attract people. From the Bay Area, you had the Electric Boogaloos, the dance crew who brought popping down here. Tyrone Proctor, who is from Philadelphia, came here and popularized waacking. In a sense, Soul Train was this initial place for exuberant L.A. dancing. Then it became a place dancers all over the country gravitated to because it was the showcase. Everyone I interviewed said the same thing: I wanted to be where those kids were. I wanted to dance with them.
  4. Which of the many L.A. dancers you profiled for your book is your favorite and why?

    Jody Watley. She tells a funny story: She wanted to be on Soul Train for a while as a teenager. She was brought on by a guy whose regular partner didn’t show up. She loved it, but she didn’t get asked back. When she finally got on as a regular, she became part of a crew called the Outrageous Waack Dancers. They brought this kind of dancing that came out of gay club scene. It was a precursor to voguing, which people know now. Jody became a fashion icon. She had a kind of a Pointer Sisters-y thing going on—retro, but contemporary. A lot of people forget that the 1970s style, the disco style, had a lot of echoes of 1940s style, and she was able to embody that. Jody was really a star. It was one reason she got into Shalamar, a music group spun off of Soul Train—she could sing, but it was her look. She was one of the most identifiable dancers not just because of her beauty but because of her dress style.
  5. I was particularly struck by your profile of Cheryl Song—“the Asian girl with the long hair”—how did she end up on Soul Train? And did people think it was weird?

    Cheryl’s family moved into a black neighborhood in L.A., I guess to save money. She said her parents were not actually that friendly to black people and had stereotypes even though they lived in a predominantly black neighborhood. She went to Dorsey High School. She had a lot of friends and loved to dance. She would basically sneak out. For a long time, her parents didn’t know she was on Soul Train. They didn’t know anybody else who watched the show. It was one weekend a month, so you could spend a Saturday there, go back to the set on Sunday, and then go home and get away with it by telling your parents you were doing a sleepover.

    Cheryl was probably the most visible non-black on the show. There were other white dancers on the show, but people don’t remember them. Everyone seems to remember Cheryl. It’s probably because her hair was so damn long. If she had been an Asian girl with shorter hair, it might have been a different thing. The long hair stuck. She danced all right, but it was really her whole look and her hair—the whole California thing.